Giving Voice to Our Pagan Past and Present: Pam Grossman on Witches, Women and Pop Occulture

A font of knowledge on mysticism and magick throughout history, Pam Grossman is one of the pre-eminent curators, writers and scholars giving voice to our pagan past and present. Whether declaring 2013 “The Year of The Witch” in The Huffington Post, editing Abraxas: International Journal of Esoteric Studies, or giving riveting presentations on the occult in art history, her work is magnetic and vital for neo-pagan discourse in pop culture and beyond. Grossman also happens to be an active feminist and women’s rights advocate, so we were thrilled to meet her in the flesh and discuss everything from politics and painting to witches and the rise of feminine consciousness.

What significance does the word ‘witch’ hold for you? When and how do you use it?

For me, [witch] is a word that I use very thoughtfully. I’m very cautious about the context in which I use it. The word feminist is a word I’ve been loud and proud about for a long time. They both have a slight risk factor, or even danger factor. There are real risks and real dangers if you use those words around people who are ignorant about them and have misconceptions about them and are fearful. One can be persecuted in very real ways, whether in your career or in certain cultures where they are killing people for perceived witchcraft. I actually do think there’s a real overlap. I feel like the word feminist is one that is really being reclaimed a lot more vocally right now, when you have a Beyonce or a Miley Cyrus calling themselves feminists (of course you can argue all day long about whether or not they are, which is an argument I love to have), I think it’s wonderful that they are using that word. I think it’s wonderful that Tavi Gevinson is using that word to an audience of primarily young women, how incredible and how empowering is that?

The word witch has so many implications depending on the context and the person’s intention. I think it’s a more nebulous word, and because of that it’s a really powerful one. It’s one that I’m very conscious of where and when I use it in terms of describing myself or the things i’m interested in.

Pam’s video essay on witches in cinema for The Film Society of Lincoln Center

Do you see any parallels between the ‘slut discourse’ and the ways women were branded witches years ago?

I think there are some parallels. There are so many words that are so loaded. There are certain words that we use only when we are talking negatively about women. They’re often words that we use when we’re threatened by some perceived power. I think it’s wonderful that women want to reclaim these words and wear the costume of these words in a very thoughtful way that has agency, but I also think that the word ‘slut’ still – I think for me anyway – that’s not a word that I would want to call myself, whereas while the other two of these words are dangerous, they’re about women that have power over themselves, who are comfortable in their own skin. When one uses them in a resignifying way there is that level of irony and consciousness and awareness of the history of those words. But I also think that they’re all words that imply a woman doing what she wants. A woman believing that she has space in the world that she can take up.

It seems like ruins and occult symbolism are everywhere today, from Urban Outfitters to Ke$ha videos. What are your feelings about the presence of the occult in fashion and pop culture?

You know it really depends. Some of it I enjoy in a really kitschy way. The aesthete side of me digs it because those are the kinds of images I’m attracted to. That said, I feel the same way about it that I felt when I was a teenager and a band I really loved blew up and then everybody liked them because it was fashionable, and you’re like ‘No, but I really understand it and I really love it!” which is kind of an immature reaction. On the other hand, if these symbols are bubbling up in the collective unconscious right now, I do think it’s for a reason, and I think that they can really be a gateway for some people. Honestly, I think a lot of scholars don’t like to admit it but that’s how they got into it in the first place, because they picked up a book or saw an image in a film that awakened something in them. So if this just means that some people are getting intrigued by it and it’ll start them down a path to some real research and some real learning, then I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Any recommendations for newbies or those wanting to more seriously explore the occult?

Before asking them to read things, I’d recommend they try doing experiential things, try going to groups, try to meet up with a friend to do a ritual themselves. All these symbols are conduits for energy and experiences that are incredibly meaningful. That’s probably what I’d recommend first. I’d probably send them to Catland and tell them, go check something out!

I think we’re entering a stage of shamelessness, and I mean that without any sense of irony at all. Just this idea that there are ideas that people are collectively attracted to that usually have stigma attached to them, and people are starting to say, you know what, this is meaningful for me, this is important to me, so I’m going to embrace this in a more holistic way and not just in this hidden corner of my life.

Remedios Varo. “Visita Inesperada” (Unexpected Visit), 1958.

Can you delve into your personal background in the occult?

I was always like this. I think a lot of kids are. I think a lot of children go into very imaginal spaces, are attracted to mythology, fairy tales, and rituals, and interface with nature in a really deep way. I think I was really, really lucky with my parents, they are open-minded artists and expressive people who are comfortable with different kinds of spirituality and creativity. I was never taught to close that part off.

In what ways did your personal interests inspire your academic interest in the subject?

The esoteric has influenced so many of our greatest thinkers and creators throughout time, and it’s exciting that we’re starting to embrace that side of history. I was really fortunate in college (I studied at NYU) that the anthropology department happened to have a lot of courses in magic and ritual and witchcraft so I majored in cultural anthropology and triple minored in art history, religious studies, and creative writing. Without really knowing what I was doing, I was cobbling together this curriculum in consciousness studies in visual culture and when I encountered Jung and Joseph Campbell I mean…my hair was on fire! That started me down a much more intensive path of study.

How does that contribute to what you lecture on now?

I’ve always been attracted to the surrealists. My favorite artist, if I had to pick one, since I was a teenager, is Remedios Varo, I love her and Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini and all these incredible, very witchy surrealist painters. There’s still not as big of a space for the archetype of the female as creator, the female as artist. These surrealist women really opened the door to me as a template for what a woman looks like who lives on her own terms and is creative and lives in this magical space. That was the doorway for me into art history. We can trace the thread of magic and conjuring ever since cave paintings…

Which were done by women I hear!

Yes, I’ve been reading those articles too and they’re so thrilling! But I think there’s a really interesting thought line that really bubbles up with the Symbolist movement. Mostly male, but this idea of romanticizing the imagination, being at peace with darkness, or at least honoring that there’s this whole other side to human experience that isn’t all beautiful flowers and sunshine all the time, and I do love that side of things too. A vein of thought that’s really comfortable with the cycles of life.

If 2013 was the year of witch, what was 2014?

I get asked that question a lot. You know when I said 2013 was the year of the witch, it was a little tongue in cheek, but also not at all. I think it was just the beginning of what we’re experiencing now, which is a real awakening of feminine consciousness. I think that’s still continuing, big time. I think we’re definitely in a spiritually transitional time, and a really painful time, but also a hopeful time. When I was reading all about the year of the horse it really plugged in to me archetypally in terms of the energy we’re experiencing. In this very tongue in cheek way I said, ‘I think this is the year of the unicorn!’ because it’s about magic and wildness and being really brave and taking big risks, which generally is horse energy, but you have to add that horn, so it’s a little bit more on an immaterial plane.

Leonora Fini. “La Victime est reine” (The Victim Is Queen), 1963.

Who are your favorite witches in pop culture?

Right now I think there’s lots of little girls, young women, and women our age that really love the idea of dark, mythical, powerful women. There are so many archetypes out there for women and girls that we’re supposed to aspire to be like that feel either corny or feel like they’re trying to too hard, and I feel like this archetype feels like it’s one just for us. It’s not overtly sexual either, unlike so many of the other archetypes we’re given which have to do with our sexuality. I mean witches are sexy, but that’s not where their magic lies. It lies in manifestation and being able to make things happen. Traditionally it’s women who are more attracted to darkness. In a lot of our classes and lectures at Observatory, the really macabre ones often get more women than men in the audience. Even traditionally if you think of the goddess archetypes it was generally females who have to do with death as the creators and destroyers. I think it’s something about women that is associated with liminality. Men certainly can be too, but I think that we’re really hungry for honoring that side of ourselves and here are these characters that we can enjoy and be inspired by and maybe even to a degree aspire to be like in a way. So yeah, Maleficent is definitely one.

I actually had a guilty pleasure of watching The Witches of East End on Lifetime. It’s not a great show, but I actually enjoy it more than I enjoy American Horror Story. When things get into the horror realm I get really closed off to it. I’m not really interested in left-handed magic. To me, as much as a lot of people think it’s fun and cool and what have you, I totally get the allure, but for me personally, I don’t really like the idea of perpetuating the stereotype of a witch as an evil creature. I get a kick out of Willow from Buffy, even though there’s darkness there, she’s also trying to help, and there’s this positive energy that she’s harnessing.

Keep up with Pam’s events, lectures, and more via Phantasmaphile, her renowned blog of art and culture with an esoteric and fantastical bent.

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